News Column

Clay Aiken's not just any Joe

July 28, 2013

YellowBrix

July 28--Clay Aiken is not afraid of acting, and the whole world knows singing comes naturally to one of the most popular stars to ever emerge from the "American Idol" TV show.

But dancing? No way.

He's as clumsy as can be, he says.

"I like this role because it doesn't make me dance," he said with a laugh by phone last week from New York, where he and the rest of the cast of the Ogunquit Playhouse production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" were rehearsing.

"Rehearsals are going quite well," he added. "Right now, I'm standing here looking in the window (of the rehearsal room) while they're learning their difficult dance moves that I don't have to do."

Aiken, 34, plays the title role in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, which opens Wednesday and runs through Aug. 31.

He said he chose to do the show because he knew the reputation of the Ogunquit Playhouse, and is interested in doing more theater.

"Ogunquit is a storied and respected theater throughout the country, even in Manhattan, but really throughout the theater world. The opportunity to do a show like this in a place that is so well-respected was hard to turn down," he said.

"Joseph" marks the third time Aiken has worked in theater. He made his theatrical debut in a big way, with two stints as Sir Robin in "Spamalot" on Broadway in 2008. Later, he kept a longtime promise to his hometown theater in Raleigh, N.C., by returning there to sing in "The Drowsy Chaperone."

He's looking forward to playing Joseph.

"This is a show that I have known for years," he said. "I grew up as a teenager listening to this music. I remember listening to it on a CD Walkman, so there's a little history for me with it."

"Joseph" is very much a family-friendly show. Webber and lyricist Rice used the biblical story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis for their musical, which tells of the coat of many colors. It's sung almost all the way through, with little dialogue. Two of the best-known songs from the show are "Go, Go, Go Joseph" and "Any Dream Will Do."

Despite being written in the late 1960s, "Joseph" didn't open on Broadway until 1982, though it had appeared on stage in London's West End a decade earlier.

Since then, thanks largely to a string of performances by Donny Osmond, it has become one of most loved musicals in contemporary theater, in part because it features so many musical styles. Webber and Rice wrote pop songs, rock songs, country songs and island music for the show.

Which makes it a perfect vehicle for Aiken, said director Jayme McDaniel.

"I was certainly familiar with his voice before we started the process, but now, listening to it every day, I hear how he's been influenced by so many styles. The remarkable thing about his singing is how it appears so effortless," McDaniel said.

"He just sings higher and higher, and you never question just how high it can go. It's not like any 'Joseph' that we have heard before."

LAUNCHED ON TV

Aiken became part of America's pop-culture consciousness in 2003 when he finished second on the second season of "American Idol." But that second-place finish was questioned right away, because Aiken was widely considered the popular choice.

Since then, he has released a series of popular CDs, toured extensively and written a book. He's also done TV talk shows and appeared in various sitcoms.

Theater is a logical extension of his creative talent, he said.

"I think the biggest difference, when you are doing a pop concert, you get to interact with the audience. When you do a theatrical production, you don't get to acknowledge the audience at all," he said. "Not being able to do that, it always takes me back a bit."

But Aiken loves theater, and appreciates what it takes to build a great show.

He's been working hard in rehearsals, said Ogunquit executive artistic director Bradford Kenney, who visited Aiken in New York when rehearsals began.

"I found him to be a warm, well-rounded and talented person," Kenney said. "The character of Joseph needs a fresh, appealing centerpiece.

"Vocally, he needs to be an outstanding pop performer who can handle Andrew Lloyd Webber's best songs in a first-rate and interpretative fashion. The character is a white sheep in a family of black sheep brothers. You need warmth to pull it off, and Clay has that. We just found him to be very down to earth and genuine."

BRINGING IN STAR POWER

It doesn't hurt that Aiken has star power, which translates into ticket sales. But he also has the respect of his peers, Kenney said.

Since Aiken committed to "Joseph," Ogunquit was able to recruit actress Keala Settle to play the Narrator role.

Settle received a Tony Award nomination this year for best performance by a featured actress for her performance in "Hands on a Hardbody." (She lost to Portland native Andrea Martin, who won for her role in "Pippin.")

Settle has also received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, and won the Theater World Award. In addition to her work on Broadway, she has performed in the national tours of "Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert," "South Pacific" and "Hairspray."

"She's the hottest actress on Broadway right now, and she chose to come to Ogunquit because Clay is playing Joseph," Kenney said.

Aiken said he's comfortable singing the title role, but it's not something he can do just because he knows the music from his youth. It's a difficult role, because some of the songs are out of his range. He and director McDaniel have adjusted the songs to better suit his vocal abilities, he said.

He also has to tackle the trepidation of stepping outside his comfort zone. Doing a concert is relatively easy compared to doing theater, he said, but the reward of theater makes the effort worthwhile.

"I never assumed I would enjoy this type of thing," he said. "But after doing it, I really appreciated the ensemble effort and the camaraderie of a production, with everybody having the same goal of entertaining people.

"I enjoy the pop world too, but I really like working with a group of peers. You do not have co-workers in the pop world. Everybody works for you. I really appreciate having peers."

'A BREAK FROM MYSELF'

His peers appreciate him too. McDaniel said Aiken has not received special treatment because of his star status. The cast, who are members of the Actors Equity union, voted him their deputy to serve as a go-between for the cast and management.

It's unusual for an actor with celebrity status to take on that role, and it speaks to the cast members' fondness for, and trust in, Aiken, McDaniel said.

Aiken appreciates not having to live up to the expectations that come with his personality. He's a very popular singer, and that's something he's grown comfortable with. But it's taken some time.

For many years, he denied that he was gay, or at least declined to acknowledge it. He eventually did, on the cover of People magazine. But it took time for him to open up and give fans something they wanted beyond the music.

"At a pop concert, you have to learn to be comfortable enough with yourself to interact with people and take certain liberties with people to let them know you are enjoying yourself," he said. "When you are doing something like this, you have to become comfortable with the character and disavow yourself from your personal issues.

"You have to be that person on stage. You have to morph into your character."

He enjoys that morphing process, and thinks he will like becoming Joseph, even if only for a short amount of time each night.

"I'm only the other person for an hour and a half," he said. "I wish I could take more of a break from myself."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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